Time and life may still a writer's hand, but not his voice.
January 1, 2019 8:08 AM   Subscribe

"Star Trek teaches that man will learn the error of his ways and no longer destroy the peoples that he meets, and for Native Americans, then, that's hopeful." The first episode of the Star Trek franchise to win an Emmy was written by Russell Bates (6 June 1941 – 9 April 2018), a Native American sci-fi writer and actor of the Kiowa Tribe. His 1974 animated series episode How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth, co-written with David Wise, also featured Star Trek's first Native American crew member, Ensign Dawson Walking Bear--decades before Star Trek: Voyager's Commander Chakotay. Trek's history of Native representation, many know, has been cringeworthy when not downright appalling. Bates sought to subvert racist beliefs about Native Americans' civilizations and historical accomplishments.

The episode centers around the Maya god Kukulkan, revealed to be an alien who had visited Earth thousands of years prior (a deliberate homage to the Original Series episode Who Mourns for Adonais?, which featured the Greek god Apollo). In a letter to a fan website for Star Trek: The Animated Series, Bates described his intentions to flip the script on Eurocentric and white supremacist beliefs which held that the great structures and civilizations of Mesoamerica could not possibly have been built by indigenous peoples:
Now, I always had been outraged that Europeans said the vast cities in Central and South America could not have been built by the "savages". They had to have had help: the Egyptians, or the Chinese, or the Phoenicians, or even the Atlanteans came, taught the poor Indians how to build their civilization, and that's how it all happened. Horse breath! So, the story about Kukulkan became that Kukulkan visited ALL races of mankind, taught them his knowledge, and then departed. Now the story said that NOBODY on Earth invented a damned thing! They all got their knowledge from somebody else!
Watch Bates discuss his career in a 2011 interview produced by documentarian (and Kiowa Tribe member) Boots Kennedye for the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority.
posted by duffell (13 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I had heard from so many sources that the animated series was really worth checking out, but I had no idea it had won a flippin Emmy. Definitely need to play some catchup now. Thanks, duffell.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:08 AM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is a wonderful post. Thank you for putting it together.
posted by Fizz at 9:22 AM on January 1, 2019

Thanks for posting. This was informative.
posted by greermahoney at 9:22 AM on January 1, 2019

Adding my thanks. I haven't done a proper rewatch of the animated series since I watched it back in the seventies as a kid; while some of the episodes were pretty great (such as the only time that Uhura gets to command the Enterprise), others were just weird (the one where there's a giant Spock clone) or problematic from a continuity viewpoint (Larry Niven's episode effectively retconned a big chunk of his Known Space universe into Trek). This one looks to be worth a rewatch, maybe even today.

A couple things that I'd like to pick out (they may be noted in that second YouTube link, which I also plan to watch):

- Jamake Highwater: Hired by UPN to be the Native American consultant for Star Trek: Voyager, despite being outed as a fake a decade earlier.

- The Voyager episode "Tattoo", which was... well, just read the FanFare link. Pretty much the opposite of "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth". A good candidate for the worst episode of the series; yes, worse than "Threshold."
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:08 AM on January 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

The Métis in Space podcast is hosted by MOLLY SWAIN (Métis from Calgary) and CHELSEA VOWEL (Métis from the Plains Cree and Michif speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta).

Their pitch is "unapologetically indigenous, unabashedly female & unblinkingly nerdy, otipêyimisiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk (métis in space), the hosts drink a bottle of (red) wine and, from a tipsy, decolonial perspective, review a sci-fi movie or television episode featuring indigenous peoples, tropes and themes."

So far, they haven't discussed the Serpent's Tooth episode, but they have tackled three others:

Star Trek: the original series--season 3 episode 3 "The Paradise Syndrome"

Star Trek: The Next Generation--season 7, episode 2 "Journey's End"

Star Trek: Discovery--season 1, episode 8 "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum"
posted by Jesse the K at 10:34 AM on January 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

I was surprised to see we hadn't done a TAS rewatch over in FanFare.

Further notes on TAS:

Alan Dean Foster wrote a series of novel-length adaptations of the entire series, three per book, which are quite good, moreso than they needed to be.

Long ago MeFite ChurchHatesTucker created a fantastic fan vid using TAS clips under the rippin' strains of the long-defunct Sacto Trek Punk band No Kill I.

For many years, the overall property managers of Trek refused to treat TAS events as canonical, one supposes due to some of the sillier, stranger episodes (giant Spock clone, eg). Iirc that appears to be changing and in our FanFare VOY discussions I recall hopeful speculation that we might get contemporary visualizations of M'ress and Arex.

"Serpent's Tooth" is a great episode! Thanks so much for posting this and focusing on Bates. I'm just finishing Mann's 1491, which has proven to be a worthwhile use of a week.
posted by mwhybark at 10:36 AM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh, and be aware: TAS is one season of a limited-animation Saturday morning kid's show from the seventies. The runtimes are startlingly short, and the stories are extremely compressed.
posted by mwhybark at 10:39 AM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Somewhere in the Starship Sofa archives is a lecture by Amy H. Sturgis on Star Trek and native Americans. I can't find the thing, but remember that it was really good, covering a range of shows and novelizations.
posted by doctornemo at 1:58 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I also got a lot of interesting responses when I asked in AskMe:

"I love Star Trek, and Star Trek is also a goofy, sexist, racist, fantasy of benevolent neoliberal military imperialism. I want to read/watch/listen to LGBTQ, POC, and Indigenous folks who also know and (ambivalently) love Star Trek critiquing the show (any series) for its many flaws."
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:37 PM on January 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

This (short) Twitter thread from an archeologist on "Ancient Aliens" and why that's destructive to the history of civilizations, like Native American ones, is relevant to this conversation. I'd often thought of ancient aliens crap as stupid, but never from the perspective of it erasing the history of cultures. so, I guess it's past time for me to listen to some of the podcasts mentioned here!
posted by crush at 3:12 PM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh hey, I done some amusing chop-ups of that series.. !
posted by Drexen at 6:21 AM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Crush: This (short) Twitter thread from an archeologist on "Ancient Aliens" and why that's destructive to the history of civilizations, like Native American ones, is relevant to this conversation

We had a conversation about that recently on the Blue.
posted by Ashwagandha at 1:55 PM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh hey, I done some amusing chop-ups of that series.. !


"You can't do a red alert when someone disagrees with you."
"You can!"
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:17 PM on January 2, 2019

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